The first time I visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in March 1988, I was struck by how much the countryside reminded me of where I grew up in the southern Piedmont of North Carolina. The rolling up-and-down terrain could have been Stanly or Rowan or Cabarrus counties. The low blue hills in the distance could have been the Uwharrie Mountains.
I wondered if my great-grandfather, William C. Dry, had similar thoughts of home 150 years ago as he tramped past the tidy farms and through the small towns of southern Pennsylvania – Greencastle, Chambersburg, Cashtown – with Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
William was one of the dusty foot-soldiers in the 52nd North Carolina Infantry that marched through Maryland and into Pennsylvania. His younger brother, Thomas, was in the 5th North Carolina Infantry, which also made the long march from Virginia.
I’ve been to Gettysburg many times since that first visit, and I’ve thought that if a movie producer asked a location scout to find a perfect place to film a battle scene, it would be Gettysburg. The rolling terrain and low hills provide lots of interesting elevations and vistas – high ground to be defended to the last man or taken by daring, against-all-odds charges. Large boulders and exposed rock outcroppings dot the landscape and seem to beg for soldiers to hide behind them and cause headaches for opposing generals who must send troops to assault an impregnable natural fortress.
And I always get that haunting sense of familiarity. When I’ve stood on the summit of Little Round Top – a small mountain that was the site of a fierce and pivotal struggle on the second day of the battle – and looked down the slope at the rugged terrain, I’ve thought of the overlook at the summit of Morrow Mountain back home in Stanly County.
So when you walk the battlefield with these thoughts in mind, it’s easy to get caught up in schoolboy reveries and family stories of valor and glory and forget what this furious fight was all about. Something about this battle and the climactic event on July 3 that came to be known as Pickett's Charge has buried itself deep in the Southern psyche. As William Faulkner wrote about the Confederates’ ill-fated attempt to storm Cemetery Ridge in Intruder in the Dust, “For every Southern boy 14 years old ... there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863.” And that 14-year-old boy and lots of people much older can think, as Faulkner wrote, “Maybe this time . . . ”
The courage Confederate soldiers displayed that day is remarkable, and we can only hope that all American soldiers show the same bravery in the service of their country. The cause for which those brave Confederates were fighting – which included the preservation of slavery – was not, in my opinion, worthy of such valor.
A few years ago, I hired Gary Kross, who’s been a licensed guide at the Gettysburg National Military Park for nearly three decades, to take me on a personal tour of the battlefield. I asked Kross to focus on the movements of the 52nd and the 5th North Carolina infantries.
During our tour, I told Kross about that odd sense of familiarity I felt when I visited Gettysburg, and wondered if similar thoughts had crossed my ancestors’ minds.
Kross smiled. “I’ve heard that before from a lot of North Carolinians who come up here,” he said. “I get that a lot.”
Many of Lee’s soldiers from other parts of the South also were impressed by the lovely countryside.
“Pennsylvania is the greatest country I ever saw in my life,” Lieutenant John B. Evans of the 53rd Georgia Infantry wrote to his wife, Molie, back in Jackson, Georgia in June 1863. “Molie if this state was a slave state and I was able to buy land here after the war you might count of living in Pennsylvania.”
For the soldiers who came to Gettysburg, the bucolic beauty and haunting familiarity of the land probably evaporated once they were fighting for their lives. The tour Kross led me on – and the horrific details about the fighting that he described – conveyed to me at least an inkling of the tragedy that happened between July 1 and July 3, 1863. And what happened was this: for three terrible days, around 160,000 men furiously hurled themselves at each other and did everything they could to kill each other. When the awful slaughter was over, any sane person forced to look upon the carnage would have been shocked and disgusted and sickened by the sight.
And civilians far away from Gettysburg got an unusually graphic depiction of the bloodbath when Alexander Gardner’s photos showing bloated, swollen corpses were publicly displayed in the North shortly after the battle.
Lee's army began moving north from Virginia in mid-June 1863. By late June they'd crossed into Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, a Union army under General George Meade had been shadowing Lee's movements, trying to stay between the Confederate army and the vital cities of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.
Carlton McCarthy, who made the trek to Pennsylvania in a Confederate artillery company, later wrote about the extreme discomforts the soldiers endured during long summer marches. “In the summer time, the dust, combined with the heat, caused great suffering,” he wrote. “The sun produced great changes in the appearance of the men – their skins, tanned to a dark brown or red, their hands black almost, and long uncut beard and hair, burned to a strange color, made them barely recognizable to the home folks.”
By June 29, 1863, after more than two weeks of marching, William C. Dry probably resembled the soldiers McCarthy described when the 52nd North Carolina Infantry stopped at Cashtown, not quite eight miles from Gettysburg.
It was poetically appropriate, perhaps, that they got paid the following day in Cashtown before setting off for Gettysburg.
Lee came to Pennsylvania 150 summers ago looking for a fight that he hoped would end the war on Southern terms. But the epic three-day Battle of Gettysburg wouldn’t turn out as he’d hoped. And that battle, arguably the pivotal battle of the Civil War and undoubtedly one of history's seminal events, would be the beginning of a terrible 18 months for my great-grandfather and his family.
This is the third in a series of posts about my family's experience in the Civil War. Sources for this post included Lee Moves North, by Michael A. Palmer; Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life, by Carlton McCarthy; Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the Civil War, by Alexander Gardner; research by Gettysburg battlefield tour guide Gary Kross; and exhibits in the museum at the Gettysburg National Military Park. The painting at the top of this post is by artist Mort Künstler and shows General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia on their march to Pennsylvania in June 1863.
Roy Sievers was a good player on some not-so-good Major League baseball teams from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. He was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1949, and was named to the American League All-Star Team five times before his career ended after the 1965 season.
He didn’t make it into baseball’s Hall of Fame, but when I was a kid he did something for me that I think makes him one of the greatest players of all time.
In 1959 Sievers was playing for a perennially hapless Washington Senators’ team that inspired comedians of the day to quip that Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”
The Senators, who had a Class AA Southern League farm team in Charlotte, were scheduled to open the 1959 season on April 9 against the Baltimore Orioles. On April 6, the Senators played their final spring training exhibition game in Charlotte’s old Griffith Park against the Chicago White Sox.
I was in the third grade. I had a classmate named Keith Douglas whose father was a professor at Pfeiffer College in my hometown, Misenheimer, about 40 miles from Charlotte.
Keith and his parents were from New England, loved baseball, and were passionate Boston Red Sox fans. Keith’s dad got tickets to the Senators-White Sox exhibition game, and Keith invited me to go along.
The game was on a Monday afternoon, so Keith and I had to get permission to miss school. That request went to the principal of Richfield School, C.P. Misenheimer, who was such an avid baseball fan that he’d spent part of his honeymoon with his new wife watching a New York Giants’ game at the old Polo Grounds in New York. I don’t think he had a problem letting Keith and me duck out of school to see a big league game in Charlotte.
Keith’s dad got us to the ballpark well ahead of game time, and then turned us loose to seek autographs from the players. Recordings of Broadway show tunes were playing over the Griffith Park public address system. To this day, when I hear Judy Garland singing “Meet Me in St. Louis” I see the grandstand and feel the sunshine on my face and the grass under my feet as Keith and I set out at a dead run to chase players.
Most of the players were cooperative when asked for an autograph, and many of them were mingling with the crowd. Keith and I recognized them from their baseball cards.
We spotted Nellie Fox, the White Sox second-baseman, getting a drink from a water fountain beneath the grandstand. He was holding his trademark chaw of chewing tobacco in one hand while he drank. He was glad to sign for us.
Somehow, Keith and I got split up and started chasing players separately. I spotted White Sox pitcher Early Wynn in the grandstand, chatting with his wife. “Mr. Wynn,” I said, “can I please have your autograph?”
Wynn seemed to be amused by a little kid with a twangy Southern accent politely asking for his autograph. He teased me a little, asking his wife whether he should sign his name for this guy. His wife, however, didn’t much care for her husband’s teasing a child. “Oh Early, stop it,” she said. “Give him an autograph.”
I went over to the Senators’ side of the field, but by now game time was approaching and they’d gone into their dugout. I spotted Roy Sievers, leaning back on the bench with the bill of his baseball cap pulled down low over his eyes.
I leaned over the grandstand railing and yelled to him, “Mr. Sievers, can I have your autograph, please?”
He pushed up his cap and looked up at me, and grinned. He motioned for me to come down into the dugout. I was astonished. “I can’t,” I said. “They’ll kick me out.”
“Don’t worry, kid, I won’t let them kick you out,” he said. “Come on down.”
I shook my head. He motioned to me again, more emphatically this time. So I climbed over the railing, jumped down onto the field, and ran into the Senators’ dugout. I handed Sievers my pad and pencil. Still grinning, he signed it, but instead of handing it back to me he called out to the other players standing around him. “Hey, guys,” he said. “Sign this.” And the pad was passed around to every player in the dugout.
I was stupefied, and I think I just stood there speechless with my mouth hanging open. Everyone, including Senators’ manager Cookie Lavagetto, signed the pad. Sievers handed it back to me. I finally managed to say something like “Wow, thank you, Mr. Sievers,” then ran up the dugout steps and scrambled back into the stands.
Sievers hit a home run over the left field wall that day, which I remember clearly, but the Senators still lost, 9-6, to the White Sox, who would go on to win the American League pennant in 1959.
That pad with Roy Sievers’s and other players’ signatures became one of my most prized possessions, but somehow, over the years, it disappeared. Still, the memory of Sievers grinning and motioning me to come into the dugout is as vivid as if it had happened a few days ago.
Photo: The Topps 1959 baseball card for Roy Sievers.
The activities of Civil War soldiers often were announced by drum rolls. So maybe a drummer pounding the call for “Assembly” 150 years ago today sent my great-grandfather, William Crooks Dry, and hundreds of other Confederate soldiers in the 52nd North Carolina Infantry scrambling into formation.
In his 1882 Civil War memoir Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life, Carlton McCarthy described the flood of questions that popped into soldiers’ minds when they were ordered to assemble to begin a march. “Orders to move?” McCarthy wrote. “Where? When? What for? – are the eager questions of the men as they begin their preparations to march. Generally, nobody can answer, and the journey is commenced in utter ignorance of where it is to end.”
By the summer of 1863, William had recovered from a wound he’d received at the Battle of Goldsboro Bridge six months earlier and returned to duty with the 52nd. The unit had been moving since early April, when they boarded a train in Kinston, North Carolina that took them to Taylorsville, Virginia. The 52nd moved again in early June, this time to take up positions on the banks of the Rappahannock River a few miles downstream from Fredericksburg.
On June 10, the 52nd was ordered to a nearby train station where they were to board a train to Hanover Junction, north of Richmond, to relieve a unit under the command of General John Corse.
But that turned out to be one of those “hurry up and wait” orders that have annoyed soldiers since the beginning of time. After sitting for hours waiting for the troop train, the 52nd’s orders to Hanover Junction were rescinded. The unit under General Corse would remain in place. The 52nd’s commanders received new orders to report to General James Johnston Pettigrew, and by nightfall they were back in their camp on the Rappahannock.
The train that never arrived would change the lives of the men in the 52nd.
While the 52nd had been traveling from North Carolina and encamping on the Rappahannock, General Robert E. Lee had been dodging attempts by the Confederate government to detach some troops from his Army of Northern Virginia to be sent west, where Union General Ulysses Grant was threatening the vital Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Lee also had been asking for more men, but he wasn’t telling Confederate leaders in Richmond why he wanted those extra troops. He was quietly formulating a plan, and that plan did not involve keeping his army sitting in encampments in and around Fredericksburg.
“As far as I can judge there is nothing to be gained by this army remaining quietly on the defensive,” he noted in early June 1863.
Lee knew that the South simply did not have the resources to fight a long war against the North. Their enemy had a huge advantage in supplies and manpower, and could win simply by forcing the Confederacy to use up its scant resources.
In Lee’s mind, the best way to relieve pressure on Confederate armies to the west would be to put pressure on Union forces in the east. And the best way to do that was to take the war to the enemy. So in June 1863, Lee started moving his army northward.
It was a high risk, high reward plan. If he could march boldly onto his enemy’s turf, draw a large Union army into a major battle and decisively defeat that army as he’d done at Chancellorsville, Virginia only a few weeks earlier, it might throw such a fright into Northern civilians that they’d demand peace talks aimed at ending the war.
If another Confederate general had proposed to march into Pennsylvania and dare his enemy to come after him, he might have been called a reckless fool. But Lee’s troops were on a winning streak, so to speak, and he was certain that his men could make his gamble pay off.
“There never were such men in an army before,” he said. “They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led.”
And after watching Virginia be chewed up by two years of war, many of Lee’s men were eager to give their enemy a taste of military carnage. “Let their bones be laid waste – their lands destroyed, their towns laid in ashes, and then they will be disposed to make peace,” said William Blount, a lieutenant in the 47th North Carolina Infantry.
So on June 14, 1863, as William and thousands of other Confederate soldiers began what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. later described as “one of those dreadful summer marches,” there undoubtedly was much speculation about where they were going. And while William knew that his brother Thomas was in the 5th North Carolina Infantry, it’s doubtful that he would’ve known that his brother’s unit was part of the same massive troop movement.
None of the men moving northward on those dusty unpaved roads in the heat of that long-ago summer knew their journey would end spectacularly at a quiet little crossroads town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg.
NOTE: Sources for this essay included Lee Moves North, by Michael A. Palmer; Fifty-Second Regiment, a regimental history by John H. Robinson, Adjutant; Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life, by Carlton McCarthy; and exhibits at the Gettysburg National Military Park museum. The photo of the gatehouse entrance to a cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was made by Frank Gutekunst a few weeks after the battle in July 1863. The image is from the website The Gettysburg Compiler.